The power of marital fidelity

Old couple water plants Paris - by Yanidel

Gabriella Gambino

In general terms, fidelity implies an attitude of coherence and steadfastness in adhering to a value or ideal of love, goodness or justice. However, it can also be understood as a commitment through which a bond is established between one person and another that is intended to be stable and mutual. In other words, fidelity does not only mean adhesion to an abstract value. It can also direct our will and commitment towards another person, as in a loving relationship. As such, fidelity has always found its most perfect human expression in marital fidelity through the exclusive and unique nature of a loving relationship consecrated in marriage.

Nevertheless, the customs and moral norms prevalent nowadays do not seem to grasp the extraordinary humanising power of this value, one that can carry the ethical and spiritual dimension of a person to full achievement because, when we are faithful, we are able to be coherent in how we live in truth and freedom, and in truth and love. In particular, ever since questions were raised concerning the traditional values of marriage, mostly starting during the sexual revolution of the twentieth century, there has been a radical break between sexuality and marriage. This has brought about a fluid sexuality that has been reduced to the dimension of pleasure. It has denied the loving relationship of marriage of the capacity to be faithful to the person who is loved.

The problem is actually far more general because in modern and contemporary philosophy, the topic of fidelity is almost totally absent, apart from a few cases. These include Kantian ethics, for example, which reduces fidelity to respect for the imperative, and J. Royce who reduces it to “devotion of a person to a cause” (The philosophy of loyalty, 1908). In fact, the moral codes by which people live nowadays mostly regard fidelity as an abstract and onerous duty. It curtails our freedom by obliging us to renounce other possibilities that may present themselves during the course of our lifetime.

It has arrived at the point where, in the latest developments in family rights, the obligation to respect marital fidelity has lost almost all meaning. Let us take Italy for example. Although an article of the law (no. 143) declares that the celebration of marriage entails the reciprocal obligation of fidelity by both spouses, the simple violation of this duty, in other words adultery, is not sufficient to justify the attachment of blame for the separation on the culpable spouse. They have to demonstrate with specific proof that this has made their continuing coexistence impossible. This shows how civil norms concerning divorce have undergone significant change in this regard. It has made conjugal union even more fragile, and has reduced the importance of any commitment to fidelity. Until the nineteen-sixties, the violation of marital fidelity entailed the right for the wronged spouse to obtain a “fault divorce” which meant that blame was attached to the offending spouse, but now this concept has disappeared from current legislation. In both the United States and in Europe, the withdrawal of fault divorce from the system (and the consequent introduction of no-fault divorce) has created a legal and cultural context in which unilateral divorce could become an individual constitutional right. The objective cause of the divorce becomes irrelevant (in this case, the violation of the duty to fidelity), and what counts is the subjective will of the one who wants the divorce. In this regard, the discipline of marriage and divorce reflect recent juridical reflection which is liberalistic and tends to reduce marriage to a contract. It becomes simply the voluntary union of two people who wish to get married and that should last as long as they wish to remain married.

In this respect, when lawyers speak of the privatisation of marriage, the term “privatise” could be brought back to its etymological origins privare, meaning to deprive something of that which gives it its intrinsic characteristics and essentials.

Fidelity has always been the chosen instrument of the law to guarantee the exclusivity of a loving relationship and the stability of the family that may ensue, so there must be some reason for this. The law basically exists in order to ensure security for our coexistence and for certainty and justice in human relations, especially so that those relationships from which new individuals may come into being may be recognised through marriage and married life. What is the anthropological purpose of fidelity? Why does the law consider it to be a duty, even though nowadays the law responds weakly to its violation? In Christian theology, the fidelity of God the Father to the promise of salvation for his children is the greatest expression of his love for us. It is a love that is firm and definitive, that is given as a gift, and that simply asks to be accepted, not merited. In our times, however, fidelity seems to be tied to the fact that the person we love has to deserve our love. Consequently, when that person behaves in a way that we judge does not merit our love any more, then we can dissolve the bonds of fidelity.

The significance of fidelity as a human value can be seen if it considered to be a moral virtue in love and in particular in indissoluble conjugal love, which is necessarily linked to the dimension of time. Forever is a length of time that gives people the chance to develop and to be happy throughout their lifetime.

In order to understand this wonderful aspect of faithful and indissoluble conjugal love, we need to stop for a moment and reflect on how love between two human beings arises and takes shape.

As romantic literature has always told us, it cannot be denied that true love leads the lover to desire only the beloved in an exclusive and definitive way. There are no lovers who do not pledge to love each other forever.

However, between the period of falling in love and faithful love, there are some stages that lovers have to pass through in order to be ready to offer themselves in a sphere that is greater than themselves, an atmosphere in which their reciprocal love can breathe and live, and be nourished by their reciprocal freedom and will to be faithful to this love forever.

Karol Wojtyla presented a wonderful image in his play The Jeweller’s Shop. The wedding rings are symbols, not only of love but also of fidelity, and they are forged by the Jeweller (God). In this sense, they do not only represent the decision of the couple to remain together, but also the fact that their love is stable and faithful because it is sustained by God’s love. Their love and fidelity are forged and protected by God and transcend the couple themselves. It is not by chance that Pope Francis reminds us in Lumen Fidei that the fidelity of God in the Bible is expressed by the Hebrew word 'emûnah (from the verb 'amàn), which derives from the root meaning “to sustain” or “to support”. It is understood in this way because fidelity allows the possibility of building a marital relationship on “rock”.

In this light, the sacrament of matrimony itself constitutes a force that supports the married couple and each one’s desire to remain together in fidelity. They do so by respecting the love they promised, not only as a sentiment, but even more so as adhesion to life as a couple. It is precisely in married life that they find the means to carry together the same burdens, and to walk side by side throughout the course of their existence.

In order to have a better understanding of the anthropological development of faithfulness in love, we must bear in mind that the dynamics of the emotions, as a process of falling in love or learning to love, pass through several levels that are interwoven as they mature, and this requires more and more personal involvement.

If we take some of the terminology used by Thomas of Aquinas concerning love, these levels begin with the initial appearance of the object of one’s love into the existential sphere of the lover. This produces instant emotions – the phase of romantic love in which time seems to fly for the couple, and they want to be together for as much time as possible. It goes to the level of affective knowledge of the beloved, and they discover that they have the capacity to love. The relationship begins in this way to become a promise, anticipating a greater love. Time no longer constrains love and emotions as in the romantic stage, but it form part of the same reality. Affections need time in order to develop and come to fulfilment. The relationship begins to show ways forward and the anticipation of a project of future perfection. The beloved is not loved only for what he or she is at present, but for the wonders they can reach and achieve throughout their lives. “Grounded in this love, a man and a woman can promise each other mutual love in a gesture which engages their entire lives [...]. Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love”. (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, no. 53).

This level is called con-formation because here the loving relationship changes form through the harmony of their love and the pleasure they give to each other. They are saying to each other: “it is good that you exist”. Pleasure is the first moment of awareness of love, and acceptance of the beloved derives from this in freedom. It leads to commitment with the beloved and a feeling of belonging. There is a deep sense of responsibility that may lead them to feel that they should deal with each other in a certain way.

At this point we see the importance of fidelity as a response to a person and not simply as rigid voluntarism. Fidelity as a virtue that is lived out fully is built upon the integration of love and sexuality. It is not merely adhesion to a spiritual love disconnected from prudence and carnal love, which in any case can be found elsewhere. In this sense, a righteous conscience must insist on the integration of the affections with “creative fidelity” (G. Marcel) that is capable of continually refreshing the loving gratification that exists between lovers so that they may remain together.

Their affection for each other helps them to be open to reason, to their intention of joining together. This leads to their perseverance in love and the ongoing presence of communion between them. From this moment on, freedom guides the lover’s actions. The truth of love acquires a special meaning at this point. It will tend to bring about communion that can be true or false according to their ability to live their relationship. “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to [...] come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things. Truth opens and unites our minds in the lógos of love” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, no. 4). Truth and fidelity go forward together. The loss of will to carry out the relationship will go together with a lack of fidelity to the beloved.

In fidelity, therefore, reason plays a decisive role. It constantly helps the lovers to discern the truth of their affection in relation to the meaning of their actions. The aim of fidelity is communion which requires the gift of self. Gift does not come about through the affections, but from love that is freely and consciously given.

In this sense, freedom is not a search for pleasure without ever coming to a decision. It is the ability to decide to give a definitive and exclusive gift. Only those who can make a promise forever can be in charge of their future. They have it in their hands, and they give it to their beloved.

It is understood in this way so that fidelity may contain trust – trust in the future and in the one to whom one gives oneself. On the other hand, what is paralysing and enslaving is the fear of making a commitment. Basically, this blocks us from freedom and the ability to reason and to follow our hearts.

In spite of the indifference to fidelity that can be seen in the law and morality in general, it remains true that fidelity is an authentic form of expression of the power, coherence and hope of which human beings are capable. In our choices, fidelity is always our free and conscious obedience to the chosen ideal, to the promise that has been made. In this sense, the law, as ius, has always considered it to be an expression of justice understood not only as adhesion to the values of fidelity and loyalty, but even more as respect for the other and for the solid and stable path that a man and a woman walk together in matrimony towards their fulfilment and happiness.

For these reasons, fidelity has a crucial anthropological significance and a tremendous humanising power. It can fully develop the resources and inner treasure of every human being.

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